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From the Trenches

Mars Explored


Monday, October 15, 2018

Trenches Sweden Baltic Sea Mars WreckageThe wreckage of Mars, a sixteenth-century Swedish warship that lies 230 feet under the Baltic Sea near the island of Öland, has yielded evidence of the dramatic events that led to its sinking. History records that in 1564, during the Northern Seven Years’ War, several hundred soldiers from Danish and Lübeckian warships boarded Mars and subdued its crew. Then, according to contemporary sources, Mars’ main gunpowder hold exploded, killing most of those on board. “We can see from the remains we have identified that there was a massive fire and the bow of the ship had just been blown off,” says maritime archaeologist Rolf Fabricius Warming. “We found it about 130 feet away from the rest of the ship.”


Trenches Mars Wreckage Digital Elevation ModelAmid the wreckage, investigators have uncovered hand grenades and what are likely to be pieces of armor and a sword. They have also found skeletal parts, including a femur that was apparently damaged at the knee by a sharpedged weapon. A large grapnel, which may have been used by one of the attacking ships to grasp Mars before boarding, has turned up as well. The project has been carried out by the Maritime Archaeological Research Institute at Södertörn University in Sweden, Global Underwater Explorers, Västerviks Museum, Ocean Discovery, and the marine surveying firm MMT.

Off the Grid

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland


Monday, October 15, 2018

Trenches Iceland ThingvellirThingvellir National Park, just under 30 miles northeast of Reykjavik, may accurately be described as the birthplace of the Icelandic nation. Situated on a boundary of tectonic plates, the 35-square-mile park is a patchwork of highlands, fertile fields, and rifts filled with crystal-clear water. Thingvellir translates to “plains of assembly.” The site was home to the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, which was founded as an open-air assembly in A.D. 930 and met there annually until 1798. The governing body was founded by some of the island’s first Viking settlers and turned into the pop-up capital of Iceland for two weeks every year. In addition to hosting legislative debate, the assembly featured markets, sporting competitions, and feasts. Local chieftains are believed to have sent an emissary to Norway to record laws with which to govern the newly colonized island. Upon his return, the lands of Thingvellir—seized from their owner when he was convicted of murder—were chosen as the place of assembly thanks to their central location and ample natural resources. Researchers have been at work for more than two decades surveying the entire park for sites of archaeological significance. Among these are the remains of the Althing itself, including the ceremonial Lögberg, or “law rock,” a lithic outcrop where speeches and arguments were made, as well as remnants of turf-and-stone booths where high-status attendees set up camp. “Thingvellir was at the heart of all the major developments in Iceland’s history through the eighteenth century,” says archaeologist Margrét Hrönn Hallmundsdóttir, who has directed recent surveys. “While the site features prominently in the Icelandic sagas, especially with regard to feuds that were either resolved or not during the assembly, we continue to find archaeological remains we had no information about.”


Trenches Iceland Thingvellir Northern LightsTHE SITE

Thingvellir is easily accessible via main roads from Reykjavik. Begin your tour at the visitor’s center, which provides an overview of activities available at the park, and features a new exhibit, just opened in 2018, on the history of the site. Then walk up to a viewing platform to take in the entirety of the main assembly area. Many of the archaeological points of interest in the park, including booth remnants and ancient runes still visible to the naked eye, are well-mapped and connected via footpaths. Agriculture buffs can also learn about the evolution of farming in Iceland from the ninth century through the Industrial Revolution and visit historic farm buildings. For guests who wish to stay overnight at the park, two campsites are maintained, along with a service center and cafeteria.



Do as the locals do and embrace all things outdoors. Park guests can hike, arrange horseback rides, snorkel in the park’s famed fissures, or, with luck during colder months, take in the northern lights. Having immersed yourself in the wildness of it all, return to Reykjavik to visit the National Museum of Iceland and the Reykjavik Maritime Museum. Visitors can only come away with newfound perspective on the ingenuity and determination of Iceland’s earliest settlers. 

The American Canine Family Tree


Monday, October 15, 2018

Trenches Illinois Dog SkeletonThe fate of the indigenous dogs of the New World in the wake of European colonization has long fascinated both scholars and dog lovers. Some modern breeds, such as Catahoulas and Mexican and Peruvian hairless, are popularly thought to trace their roots to ancestors who were present before Columbus’ arrival. In recent years, geneticists have looked into how much ancient DNA these and other breeds actually carry. Now, a widely reported, large-scale study by an international multidisciplinary team suggests that they do not have much—if any—indigenous American ancestry. According to this analysis, modern American dogs are almost entirely descended from European dogs that began arriving 500 years ago. “The indigenous American dogs seem to have been almost completely wiped out,” says Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist from Durham University in England who participated in the study. This new finding contradicts other genetic studies that suggest some dogs living today still carry some indigenous DNA.


Perri and her colleagues analyzed complete genomes retrieved from the remains of seven ancient dogs that lived in Siberia and North America, and those of more than 5,000 modern dogs. They also studied 71 samples of ancient dog mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are the organs that create energy inside living cells. They have their own genomes that are inherited from the mother’s side. The team’s analysis suggests that dogs were brought to the Americas in four migrations. The first dogs would have arrived from Asia 9,900 years ago, several thousand years after the first humans arrived. A second group of dogs may have been brought to the Arctic by the Thule people, the ancestors of the Inuit, about 1,000 years ago. The third migration began with the settlement of European colonies 500 years ago, and the last took place around 1900 when huskies were brought to Alaska from Siberia during the Gold Rush. Those last two migrations, the team believes, led to the almost total disappearance of the Americas’ indigenous dogs.


Trenches Carolina DogThere may have been many reasons for this, says Perri. “Things like canine distemper or rabies came in with European dogs and may have taken a toll on native dog populations,” she says. Perri also cites historical documents describing Spanish explorers eating native dogs and notes that English colonists killed native dogs freely and prevented them from breeding with European dogs.


Another recent study of American dog DNA was led by Peter Savolainen, an evolutionary geneticist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. His team examined mitochondrial DNA in some 2,000 modern dogs, and while they found evidence for large-scale replacement of indigenous dogs, they also detected traces of ancient DNA in the modern samples. “There is still a small percentage of ancient American ancestry in modern American dogs,” says Savolainen. His team’s analysis showed that Chihuahuas are related to Mexico’s indigenous dogs and that a free-ranging breed from the southeastern United States called the Carolina Dog has about 30 percent American ancestry. In Inuit dogs they did not find any European ancestry.


There are several factors that might account for the discrepancy between the teams’ findings. Savolainen acknowledges that his study would only have detected ancestry from female dogs since he did not examine complete genomes, as Perri’s team did. This could have skewed results. Perri, in addition, notes that it’s possible that Savolainen’s team did not distinguish between modern Arctic dog ancestry and precontact dog ancestry, because both carry similar types of mitochondrial DNA. Still, Perri acknowledges that her team’s study couldn’t sample DNA from every dog population in the Americas. “It’s likely,” she says, “that there are isolated populations in South and Central America that are descendants of the precontact group of dogs.